The Coming Anarchy in Outer Space

The Coming Anarchy in Outer Space

We have entered a new space era, projecting all the Earth’s great power pathologies—ambition, fear, and greed—into the heavens.

The optimal goal then is to try to maximize the transparency of human activities in and around the Moon. More ambitious are a variety of arms control protocols, if not disarmament provisions, to sustain the demilitarization of the surface of the Moon. For example, only an international police force—Lunar Blue Helmets, for argument’s sake—might be allowed to carry light weapons such as tasers on the Moon. All heavy weapons and robotic fighting vehicles would be banned. Naturally, some lunar infrastructure projects, such as large electromagnetic mass drivers, may have to be put under international supervision.

As noted above, the one emblem of successful space science collaboration, the ISS, the area of agreement between the respective space agencies of the United States, Russia, EU, Japan, and Canada, may be abruptly terminated, collateral damage from the Russo-Ukrainian War. President Joe Biden recently announced that the United States will extend the operations of the International Space Station until 2030. It is highly likely that Russia with ally itself with China in its robust effort to explore the Moon. Very uncertain following the outcome of the Russo-Ukrainian War is whether Russia will have the financial and technological wherewithal to be more than a much-diminished partner with China in this regard.

Why not invite China to accede to the ISS, and its affiliate, the Tiangong Space Station, to reinforce a successful emblem of space cooperation? Unfortunately, the 2011 Wolf Amendment bans collaboration between NASA and the Chinese space agency. Given the challenges of space and space governance, some degree of cooperation with China on civil space activities will almost certainly be necessary and need not compromise national security. The areas where cooperation make sense do not involve tech transfer or collaboration with Chinese labs, which was the intent of the legislation. Congress would be wise to amend or repeal the Wolf Amendment. 

Space appears to be an arena where the democracy vs. autocracy divide doesn’t quite work with regard to the United States’ best interests. In December, the White House issued a document billed as the “US Space Priorities Framework.” One of its principles is that “the US will lead in strengthening global governance of space activities.” Yet the next sentence speaks of “working with commercial industry, allies, and partners in order to do so.” But the document also speaks in universal terms, with the very same paragraph saying that the United States “will bolster space situational awareness, sharing such information“ and, “provide basic spaceflight safety services to all operators.”

Such ambiguity reflects the democracy against autocracy rhetoric that Biden espouses. It works even less well with regard to the cosmos than it does on Earth. Like the oceans, space policy would be wise not to veer too far from the notion that it is, as the United States is treaty-bound to agree, a global commons. Unfortunately, the geopolitical fallout from Russo-Ukrainian War has put a dark cloud over any future cooperation with Beijing to narrow the governance deficit and shape more formal rules of space exploration to reduce the prospect of the militarization of the moon and cislunar space. A bifurcated world is one that is prone to conflict—a reality that promises to be a lose-lose in outer space. All of this discussion may project the aura of science fiction. But fiction is rapidly becoming reality. And the need to act is clear.

Robert A. Manning is a senior fellow of the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and its New American Engagement Initiative at the Atlantic Council. He was a member of the U.S. Department of State policy planning staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council Strategic Futures Group from 2008 to 2012.

Peter A. Wilson is an adjunct senior national security researcher at the RAND Corporation. He currently teaches a course on the history of military technological Innovation for the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI).

Image: Reuters.